May 10, 2016

From the Bottom, Up

A Strategy for U.S. Military Support to Syria’s Armed Opposition

With the current state of the Syrian civil war, the conditions are not ripe for de-escalation in the conflict. If the United States is seeking a transition from the Assad regime that does not lead to the enduring rule of ideological extremist organizations throughout Syria, it will need to become the decisive influence that shifts the military balance on the ground in rebel-ruled areas in favor of the politically moderate armed opposition. Therefore, the primary U.S. effort should be on a bottom-up strategy for building cohesive, moderate armed opposition institutions with a regional focus that is tailored for each individual region within Syria. This line of effort depends on providing incentives for the already U.S.-vetted moderate armed opposition groups to join together into larger regional coalitions with genuinely unified command. 

Over time, as these moderate rebel institutions become the center of gravity in their respective regions and marginalize or defeat ideological extremist organizations, they can be brought together to form larger civil-military structures and govern the predominately Sunni rebel–ruled areas inside of Syria. These regional structures can then interact with the remnants of the Assad regime and its loyalist forces to work toward achieving a long-term political solution to the Syrian civil war, such as a federalized Syria. While this approach may seem complex and difficult to execute, there are already examples inside Syria, especially in the south near the Jordanian border, where American strategy to support the armed opposition has had the most success. Indeed, it is the only approach to arming the Syrian opposition that has shown any success over the course of the civil war. 

The primary U.S. effort should be on a bottom-up strategy for building cohesive, moderate armed opposition institutions with a regional focus that is tailored for each individual region within Syria.

It is important to acknowledge that the complexity of the Syrian civil war will require this careful, phased approach that focuses on achieving its objectives over a time horizon that could be measured in up to a decade or more. This line of effort will also require sustained U.S. commitment to Syria, working through a “light footprint” approach with regional and local partners. The strategy’s overarching objective is to prevent the large areas of the country that are under opposition control, and largely irreconcilable with the state and security structures of the Assad regime, from becoming safe havens for transnational Salafist jihadist groups that target the West.


The current U.S. policy to disconnect the military situation inside of Syria from the diplomatic process is unlikely to bring long-term stability to the country or bolster acceptable, non-ideologically extremist governance in opposition-controlled areas. Unless the United States significantly increases and sustains its support for moderate rebel groups to force a shift in the battlefield, the diplomatic process is most likely to fail because there are few incentives for the Assad regime to relinquish power. Moreover, the conditions inside rebel-ruled areas of Syria will favor the entrenchment of ideological extremist organizations. 

President Bashar al-Assad’s military forces, backed by Russian airpower and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)–mobilized Shi’a militias, have made battlefield gains throughout western Syria, putting enormous strain on U.S.-supported moderate armed opposition forces. These developments further complicate the ability of the United States to exert influence on the ground in areas that have fallen under rebel control in the region. The Russian military intervention in Syria in support of the Assad regime has secured, for the foreseeable future, the continuation of Assad’s rule in a statelet instituted over core areas of support for his government in western Syria. 

The Assad regime’s security forces also have continuing presence in contested theaters in southern Syria in Dara’a and al-Quneitra governorate, in northwestern Syria in Aleppo governorate, and in eastern Syria in Hasakah and Deir al-Zour governorates. The indefinite survival of the regime, even if its authority has been substantially weakened since 2011, presents a significant dilemma for the foreign backers of the Syrian armed opposition: Russia and the IRGC are doubling down their support for the Assad regime, which is putting the Syrian armed opposition – still quite conflicted in leadership and ideological goals for the end state of Syria after the conflict – in a worse position than ever for forcing a decisive military conclusion to the war. 

Conversely, the Assad regime and its allies are engaging in the diplomatic process from a position of strength, and can use this position to force the development of a post-conflict Syria that preserves the rule of Assad, or hands over governance for the indefinite future to his regime’s handpicked successors. However loyalist forces and their allies are unlikely to restore the Assad regime’s rule throughout all of Syria in the foreseeable future, and the establishment of an enduring Assad-led statelet in western Syria would leave the country inherently unstable. Yet the United States currently has more leverage over the course of the conflict in western Syria than it has been willing to capitalize on. 

Time is running out for the United States to utilize this leverage. Russian and Assad regime airstrikes have had a devastating impact on rebel-supporting communities throughout western Syria, many of which are the home areas of moderate armed opposition organizations, including several that are militarily supported by the United States. These conditions inside Syria are actively eroding support for the United States and its policy goals among the very opposition communities it needs to support in order to bring about its desire for a stable, sustainable, and inclusive post-conflict state.

In addition to the Assad regime and its allies, ideological extremist organizations embedded within the Syrian armed opposition challenge moderate actors within the revolutionary movement and will need to be overcome. Throughout western Syria, from Aleppo to Dara’a, the rising power of sectarian Sunni ideological extremist organizations within the armed opposition threatens to entrench a post-Assad reality – one that closely resembles the sharia state that is the goal of influential jihadist theorists such as Abu Bark al-Naji, Abu Khalid al-Suri, and Abu Musab al-Suri. Another challenge is that currently the Syrian moderate armed opposition organizations do not display enough unity of command and internal coordination to repel either the Assad regime and its allies or ideological extremist organizations. 

The United States should look to the “Southern Front model” as a blueprint to build opposition military-civil governance structures throughout Syria that are predominately Sunni and under rebel jurisdiction.

The current U.S. policy focus on empowering individual moderate armed opposition organizations with military assistance is insufficient to overcome these challenges. The United States should instead take a region-by-region approach to improve the capacity of several moderate armed opposition organizations that it currently supports and unify these organizations’ efforts to grow and operate under a single chain-of-command. These rebel institutions should take the form of regional coalitions that can directly and effectively coordinate military campaigns against the Assad regime and its allies, confront and defeat ideological extremist organizations, and protect incipient civilian institutions of moderate opposition governance. Therefore, the United States should look to the “Southern Front model” as a blueprint to build opposition military-civil governance structures throughout Syria that are predominately Sunni and under rebel jurisdiction, including in northern Syria and eventually in eastern Syria as territory is retaken from ISIS. 


The Syrian moderate armed opposition needs to be empowered to become a serious military and social force, at the expense of ideological extremist organizations. Optimally, the end game of enhanced U.S. support for the Syrian moderate armed opposition will be a country that emerges from the civil war with the Assad regime transitioned out of power, the institution of an inclusive government that practices responsive governance respecting Syria’s ethnic and sectarian diversity, and the more ideologically radical actors within the armed opposition’s ranks marginalized and defeated.

However the United States should plan for a “war after the war” scenario in Syria: building a strategy to militarily defeat ideological extremist organizations within the armed opposition, while expanding support for the institution-building of moderate armed opposition coalitions on a region-by-region basis. If the United States is willing to provide a greater amount of military assistance to empower the moderate armed opposition, it should do so in a manner that rewards moderate rebel groups for confronting, and over time defeating ideological extremist organizations.

While the ongoing diplomatic process is necessary and should not be completely abandoned, it falls short in delivering greater U.S. influence on the ground inside of Syria’s rebel-ruled areas. The United States can utilize its increased influence to leverage into existence more unified, coherent, and militarily effective moderate armed opposition institutions. These institutions will be necessary in order to prevent opposition-controlled areas from being governed by ideological extremist actors, and if the cessation of hostilities with the Assad regime collapses, to be able to fight the regime and its allies to a standstill. 

  1. This study chooses to use the term “moderate armed opposition/moderate rebels.” Defining moderation in the context of a brutal, increasingly sectarian civil war such as Syria’s is always difficult. Moderation, for the purposes of this study, indicates that the armed opposition group accepts the pluralistic and inclusive platforms as defined by the December 11, 2015, Riyadh Declaration or has been vetted by the United States and supports this overarching political goal for Syria. The Riyadh Declaration is part of the broader “Vienna process,” which is the latest series of negotiations that are part of the diplomatic effort to achieve the end of the Syrian civil war. This process is named after the October 30, 2015, Vienna communique, released under the auspices of the United Nations, which calls for a transition from the Assad government to a secular, inclusive and democratic Syria post-conflict. What is most noteworthy about the Vienna process is the December 11 Riyadh Declaration. This declaration came about as a result of U.S. pressure on the armed opposition, and U.S. regional partners that are backers of the armed opposition. See “Final Statement on the Conference of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, Riyadh, December 10, 2015,” Saudi Arabia Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 14, 2015,; “Vienna Communique on Syria,” United Nations Office of the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, October 30, 2015,
  2. For the rest of the conflict, the Riyadh Declaration serves as a very useful guideline for vetting the Syrian armed opposition for future U.S. support, and is a baseline metric against which the United States can assess any armed opposition organization that seeks its military support. This approach is the correct one, and U.S. policymakers should not waver on demanding that Syrian armed opposition groups abide by the political platform contained in the Riyadh Declaration, and that the Syrian rebels that seek U.S. military assistance have a choice. They can either work toward building a sharia state by force in areas under rebel rule, such as in Idlib, or they can work toward the goals of the Vienna process and genuinely engage in building opposition-controlled areas that can be compatible with reentry into a unitary state that is pluralistic, inclusive, and practices governance that does not entrench ideological extremist organizations.
  3. Nicholas A. Heras, “Train and Equip: Fight for Pluralism in Syria,” Syria Comment, March 9, 2015,; Dafna A. Rand and Nicholas A. Heras, “How This Ends: A Blueprint for De-escalation in Syria,” Center for A New American Security, November 1, 2014, pgs. 1–2, 5, 6–7,
  4. Phillip Smyth, “How Iran is Building Its Syrian Hezbollah,” Policy Watch 2580, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 8, 2016,; Karl Morand and Phillip Smyth, “Iran’s Proxies in Syria,” Middle East Week, October 25, 2015,; Loveday Morris and Mustafa Salim, “Iran Backs Assad in Aleppo With Proxies, Ground Troops,” The Washington Post, October 19, 2015,; and Phillip Smyth, “Iran’s Iraqi Shiite Proxies Increase Their Deployment to Syria,” Policy Watch 2495, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 2, 2015,
  5. Nicholas A. Heras, “Rebel Reaction to Russian Intervention,” Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, vol. 13, no. 24, December 17, 2015,[tt_news]=44907&cHash=f913d919c8e15bb0d1571f37ecf81342#.Vq-k6TUmSG8.
  6. Joshua Landis and Steven Simon, “Assad Has His Way in Syria: The Peace Talks and After,” Foreign Affairs, January 19, 2016,; Andrew J. Tabler and Olivier Decottignies, “The Vienna Process: Transitioning Towards a Transition?” Policy Watch no 2536, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 17, 2015,
  7. Nicholas A. Heras, “The Potential for an Assad Statelet in Syria,” (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 2013), 2,
  8. David Hearst, “Putin’s War in Syria is Chechnya Revisited,” Middle East Monitor, January 23, 2016,; and Liz Sly, “Russian Airstrikes Force a Halt to Aid in Syria, Triggering a New Crisis,” The Washington Post, December 14, 2015,
  9. U.S. policy toward Syria seeks a negotiated conclusion to the conflict, with the removal of President Assad from power. It seeks a post-conflict Syria that is inclusive (i.e., pluralistic and respectful of ethnic and sectarian minority rights, and granting full political participation), building responsive governance structures to allow for the development of robust and free civil society institutions, and sustainably stable so that Syrian territory does not become a long-term base of operations for ideological extremist organizations. See Secretary of State John Kerry, “U.S. Policy Toward Syria,” (Washington: U.S. Institute of Peace, November 12, 2015),
  10. This study uses the term “ideological extremist organizations” to refer to armed opposition groups that are seeking to impose a sharia state based on Sunni sectarian extremist principles. The goal of these organizations is to build a post-conflict state based on that advocated by prominent jihadist theorists such as Abu Bakr al-Naji, Abu Khalid al-Suri, and Abu Musab al-Suri, among others, by force over the territory of Syria. They also reject a post-conflict Syria that is inclusive, as defined by U.S. policy. These groups can include Syrian and foreign fighters and do not necessarily need to be formally affiliated with either the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or al Qaeda. While this study acknowledges that there are a range of ideological extremist organizations fighting in the Syrian civil war, with the Assad regime and in the armed opposition, including Shi’a, Christian, Kurdish ethnic nationalist, Arab ethnic nationalist, Assyrian ethnic nationalist, and Turkmen ethnic nationalist groups, the most powerful and relevant ideological extremist organizations within the Syrian armed opposition in western Syria are sectarian Sunni ideological extremists. The following armed opposition groups are considered ideological extremists for the purpose of this study, although this is not an exhaustive list, as Syrian rebel organizations can be formed, or shift their allegiances, frequently: ISIS; Jabhat al-Nusra, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Ajnad Kavkaq, Jund al-Aqsa, Imarat al-Qawqaz fi al-Sham, Jabhat Ansar al-Din, Hizb al-Islami al-Turkistani, Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiyya, and Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk.
  11. Dafna H. Rand and Nicholas A. Heras, “How This Ends: A Blueprint for De-Escalation in Syria,” (Center for a New American Security, November 1, 2014), 2, 5,


  • Nicholas Heras

    Former Fellow, Middle East Security Program

    Nicholas A. Heras is a former Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), working in the Middle East Security Program. His work focused on the analysis of complex...

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